(photo by Hannah Devereux)
Alastair: Tell me about your idea of going around the world; slow travel.
Tem: In the year after I finished my degree at art school, I was really interested in this idea of travelling somewhere without an aeroplane. I got a job as an intern in St. Petersburg, in the Hermitage Museum. I figured that the cheapest way to get to Russia was on one of those horrible Eurolines coaches, which lasts about 40 hours and it’s about 50 quid.
Alastair: Was that as bad as it sounds?
Tem: It was pretty gruelling, yeah! I thought that if I’d got that far to Moscow and then carried on to Beijing, that’s a huge chunk of the world which I’d travelled through without flying. So I began to look into the options of getting across some of the oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, without catching a plane as well. I really wanted to try and work on a boat so it would make things cheaper. As it was, I couldn’t find any way of getting work like that, so in the end I paid for a trip on a cargo ship as a passenger.
Some of the big cargo ships have about two or three beds on the cargo ship. It’s not as cheap as you’d expect given the time it takes to go across; it’s about 19 days. Instead, they view it as though you’re paying for a hostel every night, and meals, and the flight, so actually it was double the price of a flight from Hong Kong to Canada.
Alastair: How did you find the company?
Tem: I just started emailing the shipping companies and looked at which shipping companies did that route.
Alastair: And then you carried on by train?
Tem: Yeah, I got trains from Prince Rupert in Canada all the way down to LA.The train network in America is very eccentric; the people who were on the trains are these amazing characters. So it’s actually a really nice atmosphere because everyone is very intrigued with what you’re doing.
I went down to Mexico, and I was there for a while and then finally got a train from LA up to Chicago, and then across to New York. I got trains from New York up to Montreal and back again, and then finally a train down from New York to Florida, where I got another boat that came across the Atlantic, called in at Italy, in Savona. Then it was trains from there to Nice and then up to Paris, and the last train back was the Eurostar to London.
Alastair: When you got to St. Petersburg, why did you want to go by train from there? Why didn’t you carry on by bus and all sorts of different things?
Tem: The Trans-Siberian Express is regarded as one of the great train journeys to have taken, and I had always wanted to do it.
Alastair: How was the reality of it compared to your preconceptions?
Tem: It’s interesting because you are travelling from A to B, but you also feel quite trapped in a way. It’s not like if you were cycling and if you see something you can pull over and take a look at it. It just whizzes past. Much of the time was spent looking out the window at these amazing sights which are then gone — they’re very fleeting — I guess that’s one of the drawbacks of travelling on a train. But also it’s quiteenjoyable. Unlike a car perhaps, where you’re concentrating on the road, it’s this window in front of you that you can just gaze out of, and it shows this amazing landscape just flowing past. It’s like a long tapestry from Moscow to Beijing.
You can see the landscape alter – in some cases very quickly; woodlands or scrubland grow into big mountains, and then dip into vast lakes. You could see the weather would change as well. I stared a lot out of the window, mesmerised. It was incredible.
Alastair: I think that the obvious difference between a bike trip and the train trip is the human side of the train journey. What were the people like on the Trans-Siberian?
Tem: It seemed like it was full of a lot of people from the military who were going home. I did it in the winter time, so it was -30 outside the whole time. Every time you’d pull into a station, there’s a huge sign which doesn’t give any inclination of the day or time, it just shows the temperature which maybe is how they locate themselves in the country: if you can see the temperature is going down, you’re heading further into Siberia.
On the Trans-Canadian, most people I encountered were using it to get across the country when they didn’t wish to drive or fly. The train was an alternative, lazy, but meditative way of doing that. It was beautiful. It also enabled Canadian people a unique way to get to see the country that they’ve grown up in, but maybe not seen all that much of. It’s not all great though. Train travel can sometimes feel like a docile way of exploring. Due to the very nature of ticketed travel – by that I mean paying for a ticket to get from A to B; and this probably goes for almost all flights, buses and boats too – the journey and experience is often quantified and then presented much like a package holiday. It’s done in a way as if to suggest that a better experience requires a better ticket. And the cheaper the ticket, the cheaper the experience. In extreme cases – there’s a definite divide between the “classes” of ticket holders on board a train. You see it on airlines all the time – but comfort and luxury don’t mean your going to have a better experience. (And if you’re reading this blog – then you know that’s a myth already!) Perhaps it’s a bit harsh to call is docile. Maybe only in practical terms – but definitely not emotionally or mentally. You can’t deviate from the tracks – but your already exploring so much by just being there.
Alastair: What was your favourite of your train trips?
Tem: I think the Tibet-Beijing was my favourite train journey I’ve ever been on. It did feel like quite a controversial journey because when the train from Beijing to Lhasa was built, it became one of the primary ways the Han Chinese flooded into to Tibet. This government sponsored migration is responsible for a lot of the traditional Tibetan culture being lost, and replaced with the dominant eastern Chinese traits (many of which have ironically now become more Western)
But from my experience, the people on board the train were incredible. I never expected to meet huge troupes of Buddhist monks on the train, as well as one of my favourite experiences of all from travelling – watching a small tibetan girl learning to say my name. Just like in Europe, Chinese trains have lots of different classes, and I was at the bottom rung. But it actually felt a bit better than most of the other trains I’d been on in China. The type where crammed in with loads more people, and for sleeper trains there’s three beds in a tier and someone at the top bunk is snoring and then every now and then leaning over to spit.
If you stuck in the middle rung or the bottom one, you’re praying that you’re not going to get any splash back, and hoping that they have good aim.
Alastair: Yeah. I hate that Chinese spitting.
Tem: Yeah, it’s awful. But arriving to Lhasa was incredible. You get there and it’s perhaps 12,000 feet. It’s probably not the best way to acclimatise because you walk off the train with a big rucksack and you think, “Gosh, I’m completely short of breath. I’m not going to make it to the end of the train station,” but it was a wonderful journey.
Alastair: Did you get some great photos?
Tem: Actually on the whole trip around the world, I didn’t have a camera with me.
Alastair: Why not?
Tem: Well I had just finished art school and all of the money had gone into the trip itself. All I afford to bring was a Dictaphone with me to record some of the sounds. And actually that’s how I return to that journey, in a way, rather than looking back to photos. I listen back through these audio files of various places… the sound of one of the train stations on the Trans-Siberian or the sound of the creaking containers on the cargo ship. It’s nice to just listen to sounds, and it transports you back there in a way that photos can’t. [You can hear them edited into a song here.]
Alastair: Do you regret not having a camera, or did it make you pay more attention?
Tem: I guess, because of what I do now, I just want to go back and do the whole thing again, this time with a camera. But I’m glad that I didn’t then, because I wasn’t continuously behind a screen trying to capture what I’ve seen. I was just trying to capture it as best I could with my eyes. It felt very liberating.
Alastair: I find it’s very easy to get addicted to trying to document everything instantly and to transmit it instantly to people, rather than just experiencing it. I definitely suffer from that.
When I did my walk across Southern India, I walked from one side to the other and then I returned to the start by train. I loved walking all that way for six weeks and then turning around and seeing the whole thing again by train. It was so nice to see the similarities and the differences.
Tem: There seems something really cinematic about train travel, which is hard to sort of get from other methods of travel. I think it’s just having that window continuously moving. But the cinematic impression, just like a good movie, makes you want to go back, and look at each place or scene again, taking your time.
Alastair: Yes, and I think maybe it’s that you have no control over it. You can’t pause, or rewind, or fast-forward. You just have to take it in the time that it’s there, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Crossing a continent by train seems a great option for someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to cycle it, who’s perhaps too daunted to go off and do some sort of solo thing. Perhaps a young person or a solo woman or somebody who’s a bit nervous. Do you think it’s a good, almost introductory way, to crossing a continent?
Tem: Yeah, I do. If you’re walking or if you’re cycling, there’s a physical element to it, and you have to ask yourself “Am I up to it?” Can I do that challenge. And I guess with trains, it just relies on managing yourself well, and managing money and things.
Alastair: What are a couple of useful things to take on a really long train trip? A camera, perhaps…
Tem: It’s always nice to have snacks or food that you can share with people that you meet, and knowing simple games that people can play is also a good tip. You can meet and get to know to a lot of people on a train, and I think that’s quite wonderful.
Alastair: Were the ocean parts of your journey worth bothering with, bearing in mind the hassle and the expense?
Tem: Yes, they were incredible. They seemed so profound when I was there and still feel like that now now. This huge cargo ship that was in was leaving port at Hong Kong: it felt enormous. It would take ages to go under bridges spanning the Hong Kong Harbour. And I thought, “This is huge!” And then as soon as you’re out for half a day into the middle of the Pacific, you feel like a tooth pick. Seeing the water all around you, extending on to the horizon and these enormous waves, rolling across the horizon towards you, which care nothing for the concerns of the captain or any of the crew…it sounds like a cliché…but you feel tiny. But it’s also a really nice feeling. It’s satisfying somehow.
Alastair: And I think boats are a good way also of getting your head around quite how big and empty a lot of the planet still is.
Tem: Yeah, yeah. Unfortunately it’s also a way of seeing how polluted it can be, as well. There are almost island-sized collections of plastic floating around the Pacific, that, in some cases, boats have to navigate past.
Alastair: Gosh, that’s horrible, isn’t it? Well, on that cheery note, let me ask my last question. If I was to give you £1000 to go on any sort of adventure, what would you choose to go and do now?
Tem: I hope this isn’t sort of twisting the idea that much, but in the last four years or so, I’ve been collecting footage from lots of trips and adventures of my own; in Alaska and Iceland and all around Europe and America – and I haven’t done anything with this footage. So the adventure for me would be to make something; a film perhaps, with that footage that I’ve shot. I’ve shot hours of material, and I really want to do something with it. So I’d actually stay in London, use the money to live on, and create something from all of the adventures that I’ve done. Actually one of the things I’ve found from travelling, is that it often costs more to stay at home, than to be away exploring the world.
Alastair: A creative adventure. I have one more final question for you: other than raw talent, how do you get so many Vimeo staff picks? They seem to me like the Internet version of an Oscar.
Tem: Oh thanks! It’s very flattering to get it. I think I was very lucky, basically. I had a film that was in the very first Vimeo awards in 2012, and I think I’m just on their radar. But actually that film I made about being a projectionist, that one film, which I made in my spare time at work, that has led to all of the film work that I’ve ever done.
Alastair: That’s the other thing that I’ve talked to quite a few people about this year, mostly people who are career adventurers, is how you go about turning your hobby into a job. And what you just said is brilliantly true, if you just make something in your spare time and you make it the way you want it, and make it as good as you can and put it out into the world. Stuff comes from that…
Tem: It’s difficult to engineer it so that you do have that spare time. But if you do get it, it’s worth just making the most of it because it’s so instrumental in changing things and hopefully getting you doing things that you’re passionate about, instead.
Alastair: That’s very cool. Thank you so much for your time, Tem.
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